4. Chs 10 to 12

CHAPTER TEN

Meg’s gear was packed up and the furniture returned to its original position. The door was unlocked. Heyes moved to slide the wall panel back across the safe.

“Wait,” hissed Meg, “Have either of you a clean handkerchief?”

Kid’s hand moved to his jacket. He paused.

“Joshua,” he prompted, with the faintest of flushes.

Heyes gave a tiny shake of his head, but untied his bandana and handed it to Meg.

He watched in admiration as she carefully wiped the safe door and dial, closed the panel and wiped that. Moving over to the door, she polished the handle. She dusted the back of the chair used to prop it shut. Finally, she wiped down the windowsill and frame. Returning to Heyes, she hooked the bandana back around his neck. Still holding the ends, she gazed up at him.

“Just in case,” she breathed seriously, “Fingerprints. You know – ‘Tales of the Mississippi.'”

Heyes caught Meg’s hands as he took the bandana from her and held them for a second.

“Meg,” he grinned. “You are definitely my kinda girl!”

He blew out the safety lamp and added it to the rest of the equipment. He slung the bag over his shoulder. Kid lowered himself out of the window. His partner handed him the corked bottle of nitro.

“Careful with that Thaddeus,” Heyes smiled.

Kid stared at him outraged.

“Wanna toss for it?” Heyes offered.

Kid rolled his eyes and shook his head, “I’ll carry it!”

Heyes helped Meg out of the window, then, still with the bag slung over his shoulder, climbed after her. He closed it and following her example wiped down the outer frame and sill.

They set off, stealthily, away from the house, holding their breath as they slinked past the outbuildings where the hands would be sleeping. As they passed the stables, sticking wherever they could to the shadows, Meg’s foot hit the curving prong of a pitchfork hidden amongst loose straw scattered around. The handle swung at her like lightening – missing her head by inches. She jumped, but managed to clamp her hand over her own mouth to stifle a squeak of shock. Her eyes flashed abject apology at Heyes.

The released pitchfork thwacked smartly against the stable, echoing in the silence of the night. It fell – noisily dislodging a bucket resting on a barrel. That too, sounded ridiculously loud as it hit first the hard floor, then banged against the timber wall. The creaking as it continued to roll back and forth seemed endless.

From within the stable came whinnies, startled neighs, hooves sounding on a stone floor.

Three pairs of eyes watched in horror as a light appeared in one of the outbuildings. They heard voices. Not clear – but enough.

“….Someone… by the stables….”

“….Git the shotguns…. ”

There was a creak as a door opened.

“Make a run for it?” queried Kid, looking at his partner. His tone of voice conveyed he did not think much of this option.

The expanse of open ground between the stables and the first available tree cover was wide and exposed. No clouds dimmed the bright moonlight.

“Getting peppered by a shotgun? You heftin’ a bottle of nitro, an’ me with Mary-Sue here, slung over one shoulder?” said Heyes.

Meg gave an indignant yelp of protest.

“In here,” ordered Heyes. He raised the bar holding shut the stable door and pushed Meg inside. Pulling the door to, behind Kid, Heyes thrust the bag of equipment over and hissed to his partner, “Hide.”

Carrying the stolen pump and blasting gear, Kid immediately melted into the darkness. A soft whinny suggested he’d tucked himself into an occupied stall.

“This is stupid!” protested Meg, “They’ll see the door’s been opened. They’ll know we’re here.”

“Sure they will,” breathed Heyes, “I mean to give ’em somethin’ to find.” With that, he scooped her up and deposited her without ceremony on a pile of freshly cut hay. “Pull your blouse outta your skirt, open a button or two, an’ play along,” he whispered, as he dropped down to lay alongside her. Feeling herself gathered into his arms, Meg gave a smothered gasp. Close by her ear, Heyes breathed. “Shut your eyes, don’t notice when the door opens – not till I do.”

She heard heavy footsteps approach, at a cumbersome run. Heyes pulled her tight. His lips sought hers in the darkness. Suddenly, his mouth moved back to her ear.

“I said play along – “he hissed. “- Don’t just lay there.”

Spurred into proving herself adept in any role thrust upon her, Meg brought one hand to the back of his head, winding her fingers into his hair. The other she flung around him in a tight hug. Her hand landed lower than intended. With an embarrassed, smothered apology, she moved it up to the small of his back.

He broke to murmur, “Not a problem, Meg,” into her hair, before returning to kissing her, bringing one leg over hers to press her more firmly back into the hay.

She heard a scrape as wood rasped against the stone floor. Opening her eyelids the slightest fraction, she saw the outline of two men in the moonlit doorway. Heyes did not react, except to let his hands run the length of her body and to kiss her more deeply.

“Who’s there? Know you’re in here,” called a voice.

A lamp, held high, swept around the stable. Meg saw that one figure levelled a shotgun. The pool of light fell on them. Heyes rolled away from Meg. He lay sprawled on his back, raised on one elbow, staring at the two men who had entered.

“Whaddya think you’re doing, fella?” rasped the man holding the shotgun.

Heyes gulped, then glanced pointedly, at Meg.

“Tha- that’s not – not exactly a question a gentleman can answer…not straight out,” he stammered.

Watching Heyes, Meg wanted to applaud. Strands of hay caught in his tousled hair. His cheeks flushed. Embarrassment flooded his dark, wide-open, eyes. His shirt, pulled open to the waist, hung loose out of his pants. She saw his chest heave with simulated passion.

The lamp was shifted slightly to fall full on Meg. Struggling to sit up, she saw two pairs of eyes raking over her. Instinctively she clutched at the neck of her blouse and tried to pull her skirt back down over her calves.

The shotgun gradually lowered and an appreciative low chuckle filled the stable.

“Sam, think we caught us a tom-cat, havin’ himself a piece of tail!”

The light was moved to run over Meg, from head to foot.

“Very nice too!”

More knowing laughter.

“Pick some other place next time, son. Find you here again, likely to get yourself a butt load o’ shot!”

Heyes, still shame-faced, pulled Meg to her feet. Avoiding the laughing eyes, he began to drag her from the stable.

As they passed the door, Meg felt herself caught.

“Now you, honey -” said the first man, “- you’re welcome back any time. Soon as you get tired of boys ‘n’ want a real man, you just come ‘n’ let me know!”

She yelped, as she received a sharp pinch, followed by a slap, which lingered over her behind.

Heyes tugged her away. They scampered across the open ground toward the trees. Laughter and raucous comments followed them. Glancing back, Meg saw the men replace the bar across the stable door and walk slowly back to the outbuildings, shoulders shaking with mirth.

oooOOOOOOOooo-

Heyes slowed the pace as soon as they reached the cover of the trees, but he did not stop pulling Meg along until they were at the spot where he and Kid had tethered their horses. Then he let go of her hand and dropped down into the grass. She flopped beside him.

He grinned at her and as soon as he could speak, gasped, “You can slap my face now, if it makes you feel better!”

She met his eyes and struggling to both laugh and pant for breath at the same time, wheezed, “No, it worked! That was wonderful, Joshua. You are SO clever! I would never have thought of pretending to be – to be -” Meg’s vocabulary, wide as it was, failed her, “- as a diversionary tactic.”

Her breathing slowly returned to normal. Looking up at the sky, she gave a sudden, rueful, snort of laughter.

“What?” asked Heyes.

She shook her head as she met his eyes, “I was just thinking, after twenty four years, a man finally kisses me – I mean kisses me properly – and it STILL doesn’t count because he’s only pretending.” She turned away from him and gazed thoughtfully into the darkness of the trees in front of her.

Heyes continued to look at Meg. He was thinking first, just how much information was packed into that last artless comment. Secondly, he was wondering if the entire male population of Boston was made up of idiots with mediocre taste – or if Meg just moved in a particularly restricted circle.

She interrupted his train of thought.

“Joshua -”

“Yes, Meg?”

“Shouldn’t we be going back to rescue Thaddeus?”

Heyes grinned, “I think Thaddeus can probably rescue himself. He’ll lay low until all’s quiet, then slip away. Make his way back here. Might take the gear back to the mine store first – depends.”

“But they put the bar back across the door,” said Meg.

He smiled, “If you can lever a window catch, Meg, guess Thaddeus can manage to escape from a stable.”

“Oh, that!” Meg sniffed dismissively, “Kate and I both learned how to do that at college. You’ve no idea how ridiculous the curfews were!”

She stretched up her arms and with a deep satisfied sigh, let herself fall back into the grass. She stared at the stars overhead.

Heyes stretched out beside her. He lay propped on one elbow, watching her watch the sky.

A contented smile spread over Meg’s face.

“Joshua -” she began, without looking at him.

“Uh huh?”

“That was, without a doubt, the most exciting night of my life!” she said.

He grinned and gently retrieved a piece of hay, caught in her hair.

“Must say, I found parts of it pretty stimulatin’ myself.”

Meeting his eyes and distrusting the teasing gleam, Meg said with dignity, “I was referring to cracking the safe.”

“Well – to what did you think I was referrin’?” asked Heyes.

Again he lightly touched her hair, freeing another tangled strand of hay. This time he did not move his hand away. He cupped her cheek, thumb resting below her chin. The laughter left his eyes, as he held her gaze. Very slowly his forefinger began to stroke her cheek. The caress was so delicate it did not touch her skin, only stirred the fine layer of soft down resting upon it. Meg gave a low murmur of pleasure. Her wide eyes returned Heyes intent look, shyly, but very willingly. Lowering his face to hers, Heyes felt his breath quicken and a tiny gasp of joy escaped, as he felt Meg’s fingers first brush the length of his throat and then twine softly amongst the hair at the nape of his neck. With the edge of his thumb, he applied the gentlest of touches to Meg’s chin, to part her lips. Her breath stirred, warm against his skin, against his mouth.

He saw her eyes close, in anticipation of his kiss.

Heyes stopped.

He drew back his head an inch or two, struggling with himself.

“Meg,” he breathed.

She opened her eyes.

“That wish list of yours – what you’re looking for in a man -” Heyes continued, “- are you holding out for the full package?”

Meg felt her heart sink. She gulped, but stood by her ethics.

“Yes,” she said, in a very small but firm voice.

Heyes was still softly stroking her cheek.

She met his gaze as he said, “Any man who doesn’t think you’re worth everything on that list and more, is a fool -” he paused, “But -”

“But -” agreed Meg, regretfully.

“Even if I could be that kind of man one day, right now, circumstances are kinda against it.”

She nodded and tried to swallow down the lump in her throat.

“Besides -” went on Heyes, “- Thaddeus always tells me I make lousy coffee.”

“Oh, well then! That’s that!” said Meg, with a brave attempt at a smile, “Like I said this afternoon – good coffee has to be a given.”

There was a short silence. Meg reached up to gently clasp the hand still stroking her face.

“Thank you, Joshua.”

“For what?” he asked, surprised.

“For not wanting me to get hurt,” she said earnestly. Then with another wavering smile, she went on, “After all, if I’d got really fond of you – and only then found out the bad news about the coffee – it would be awfully disappointing.”

Heyes looked at her for a long moment.

“You give me too much credit, Meg,” he said, seriously, “If I let myself get used to us – drinking coffee – together; it wouldn’t be only you getting hurt when I had to leave.”

He gave her hand a final squeeze and rolled away, onto his back, to gaze at the stars.

Meg sat up, clasped her knees and resumed staring into the darkness.

For a full five minutes the only sound was an occasional soft harrumph from one of the tethered horses. Meg broke the silence.

“Joshua,” she said, “Are you thinking about the same thing as me?”

Heyes was mentally replaying the last fifteen minutes with an alternative ending. One where he displayed less honesty and moral fibre. One in which Meg discovered exactly where being properly kissed by a man who both really meant it and wasn’t expecting to be interrupted by a shotgun any second, could lead.

Unseen by her, he grinned wickedly, as he replied, “I kinda doubt it, Meg. Why – what are you thinking about?”

“I’m thinking about how close together were the deaths of Louis Hamilton and that maid.”

—oooOOOooo—

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Late morning, Saturday 16th June 1883

Used to misspent nights, breaking safes and escaping afterwards; a few hours sleep, a bath and a shave, quite restored the partners. Shortly before noon, they emerged from their hotel. Blinking in the strong sunlight, they heard themselves being hailed.

“Thaddeus. Joshua.”

It was Kate. Escorted by the town sheriff and accompanied by a clearly smitten young clerk, she was coming out of the post office. They crossed over the street to join her, touching their hats and nodding to the Sheriff, who returned the gesture impassively. Kate beamed warmly at Kid, then looked, rather warily, at Heyes.

Her eyes asked, ‘Are we friends again?”

Heyes gave her his most charming smile, swept off his hat and catching up her hand brought it to his lips.

“Always a pleasure, Kate,” he said.

“Have you remembered you’re both invited to lunch?” she asked.

“Depends. Have you remembered to cook?” he countered.

“Frankly, no! But I can pick up a couple of cold chickens, ham and loaves, on the way home, if you don’t mind it being a bit of a picnic,” Kate said, adding, “Meg remembered. She’s baked a huge apple pie. But her pies are a bit hit and miss. You might be lucky. She certainly looked very smug when it went in the oven. And there’s plenty of cream, in the ice box.”

“Dunno,” grinned Heyes, “What do you think, Thaddeus? Happy to make do, with nothin’ better’n cold chicken and hit or miss pie? Or shall we turn round – head back to the hotel?”

“Anything’s OK,” said Kid, “I mean – that all sounds just fine, ma-am.”

She turned to the Sheriff, with a grateful smile, “It was so kind of you to escort me, Sheriff, but I needn’t take up any more of your time. Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones will accompany me home.”

The Sheriff touched his hat to her, “Mrs. Connor. Boys,” and turned back in the direction of his office.

That just left Ned, the young clerk. His mouth had fallen open, in envious admiration, watching Heyes kiss Kate’s hand, with such casual assurance and tease her, so light-heartedly. A week shy of his sixteenth birthday, he could not imagine ever joking about turning down a chance to visit with Mrs. Connor, even if she was serving boot leather with horse manure on the side.

Failing utterly to meet Kate’s eyes for more than a second, he stammered, “W-w-would you like me to carry that parcel for you, Mrs. Connor, ma-am?”

As well as an empty shopping basket, Kate was carrying a large envelope. Bulky certainly – but scarcely warranting the term ‘parcel’.

“That’s very obliging of you, Mr. Kingsley,” said Kate, with her kindest smile, “but it’s not at all heavy. And I’m sure you must be very busy.”

Ned coloured to the tips of his ears, at being called ‘Mr. Kingsley’, as if Mrs. Connor thought him fully grown up.

“Pa won’t mind,” he croaked, not entirely correct, judging by the frown directed at the back of his head from the middle-aged man at the window of the depot. “I could carry the groceries for you, ma-am.”

“Thank you. But there’s really no need.”

Ned still lingered, glancing from his boots, to Kate and back again.

“We’ll manage, somehow, between the three of us,” said Kid, not unkindly. He took the envelope from Kate and tucked it under his own arm. Still flushing, Ned returned indoors.

Heyes watched him go.

“Poor lad,” he sighed. “Awkward age. Just think Thaddeus, can you remember the days when you were green and foolish enough to nurse a crush like that on a staid, old, married woman like Kate?”

He tucked Kate’s hand into his arm and shook his head, sadly. Kid threw his partner a swift look, with such a mixture of threat and earnest entreaty, that a repentant Heyes, flashed him an unspoken apology.

“Oh, I know,” said Kate, “I remember my first crush. I was nearly fourteen. My stepmother hired a young émigré student, for French conversation twice a week – to perfect my accent and correct my idiom. The only English words he ever said to me were,

‘Good morning, Miss Thornton. Today our topic will be -,’

whatever it was; And, at the end of the hour,

‘Good day, Miss Thornton. Please convey my respectful compliments to Mrs. Thornton.’

But any time my governess left the room; my heart would skip a beat. I used to think – perhaps this time, this time he’ll say something. He never did.” Kate sighed wistfully, at the foolishness of her younger self. “Looking back – he was nothing special. He was just – there. That’s the trouble for poor Ned Kingsley. There are so few young girls in Butte – he has to daydream about someone. In a couple of months, he’ll wonder what he ever saw in me.”

By this time, they had strolled far enough to be out of sight of the post office. Checking up and down the street for watching eyes, Kate reached up and quickly kissed Heyes on the cheek.

“What was that for?” he asked, taken aback.

“What was that for?” asked Kid in unison. Taken aback and disgruntled.

“Mostly to say ‘thank you’ for last night. Meg told me everything.” Kate beamed at Heyes with sisterly approval, “Partly because I’m so happy. Emerson regained consciousness earlier this morning.”

“That’s great, Kate,” said Heyes.

“Glad to hear that,” echoed Kid.

Still beaming, Kate broke away to go into the butchers, leaving the partners to await her in the street.

Kid was not sure which disconcerted him more. The fact that Heyes was clearly so much in favour; or the fact that his partner seemed, for once, to be thoroughly thrown off balance.

“What was that for?” repeated Kid.

Heyes shrugged and squinted off into the distance, not facing his partner.

“Guess Meg’s been talkin’,” he ventured.

Kid made the dismissive sound, difficult to spell, but usually rendered as ‘Pfffttt!’ in dime novels.

“Knew that without askin’! What’s she talkin’ about that I don’t know?” He narrowed his eyes at Heyes, “Did somethin’ happen in the woods, while I was returnin’ the nitro and pump where they belonged?”

“Absolutely nothin’ happened,” said Heyes, firmly. He met his partner’s gaze, briefly, “Reckon that’s pretty much why I got kissed, just now!”

Kid frowned. Light dawned.

“Oh,” he said. He watched Heyes, again squint at the horizon, “Ah.”

Heyes, hands on hips, kicked up a little dirt from the street with the toe of his boot.

“You do realise, Kid, the more we behave like the kinda men Meg and Kate expect us to be – the less chance we have, with either of ’em. All the honesty, moral fibre and unselfish concern for their happiness, in the world – it’s not goin’ to get us anywhere?”

“Yup,” said Kid. Then, carefully, he added, “Not that I want to get anywhere. I never even thought about it.”

Heyes threw him a sceptical glance.

“Truth,” declared Kid firmly. Deciding he owed his partner a little return honesty, he said, “I’m concentratin’ so hard on not thinkin’ – don’t have time!”

Kate emerged from the butchers and with a brief smile, vanished into the bakery.

Kid kicked up a little dirt of his own.

“Suppose it’s a bit like goin’ straight – times when you think amnesty’ll never arrive. It kinda has to be its own reward.” He joined Heyes in squinting at the horizon. “Ain’t it enough?” he asked.

“Nope!” said Heyes, baldly, “But reckon it beats all hell outta the alternative. Meg comin’ to think I’m a skunk and me knowing she’s right.”

Kid grinned, wryly, “Look on the bright side – once the governor comes through – how long will it take you to find another girl, who can talk Hannibal Heyes to a standstill, without even tryin’ and has a natural flair for crackin’ safes? Can’t be more’n – what – another thirty years?”

Heyes screwed up his face and nodded, in agreement, “Forty at most. An’ Kate – find better’n her anywhere! Nice, kind nature – but what use is a woman who forgets to cook lunch? That impression she did of me – wasn’t funny! An’ you have to admit, the face might be easy on the eye – but she’s kinda on the fat side.”

Kid opened his mouth to protest that every curve on Kate was perfect, saw his partner’s laughing eyes and subsided.

Kate rejoined them, the basket now full. Heyes took it from her, leaving Kid to offer her an arm, to complete the journey home.

-oooOOOOOOOooo-

At the Connor house, Kate led the partners into the hall.

“Give me a moment,” she asked and ran up the stairs, disappearing into the front bedroom. She reappeared a minute later, wreathed in smiles and leaned over the banister. “Please come up,” she beamed.

Emerson was propped on pillows in an armchair. Bandages swathed his head and one hand. One eye was almost closed and well on the journey through the spectrum, from red, to purple/black, to yellow/green. Meg sat on a low footstool beside him.

“I hear you dragged me out – both of you. Thank you,” he said simply, his voice croaking slightly, as if still scorched.

Heyes and Curry made much the same self-deprecating gestures and comments, as they had to the girls, the previous day. They sat down in the window seat, indicated by Kate. She fetched a chair, from her dressing table and settled down next to Emerson, clasping his good hand in both of hers.

“Shouldn’t you be in bed?” asked Kid. “You look sick as a dog.”

“Feel sorry for the dog then,” rasped Emerson, managing a smile, nonetheless, “I can’t lie back in bed – because of the head – and can’t stomach sprawling, face down, on a pillow, staring at nothing.”

“He shouldn’t be awake at all, by rights,” said Kate, “Doctor Bell is very pleased. He must have a skull thick as a rhinoceros! I always suspected as much!” She smiled up, at her husband.

“He has twenty seven stitches!” Meg informed them, impressively.

“He came round for a few minutes, whilst it was done,” added Kate, her eyes clouding at the memory. “Doctor Bell asked me to hold him still. Not that I needed to,” she added, with quiet pride.

Emerson squeezed her hand.

“Don’t remember more then – oh – about nine of them,” he smiled, his eyes meeting hers warmly.

Heyes and Curry winced in sympathy.

“All the back of his hair is clipped off – ” continued Meg, ” – and there’s going to be a scar – like that!” She sketched a generous zigzag in the air, “So, it’ll probably grow back all crooked.”

“Which is a shame,” put in Kate, “Because the back of your head was one of your best features, wasn’t it, Darling?”

Emerson flinched, as a laugh escaped, “Don’t, it hurts.”

But, the look he threw his wife, suggested he would happily put up with the pain, to be still alive, having her tease him.

“We changed the dressing this morning,” said Meg, not without self-importance, “I cleaned round every stitch, with antiseptic.” She mused for a moment. “I’m wearing a glove next time,” she decided. “It burns.”

“I noticed that,” Emerson said, affably.

Kate’s eyes clouded over again, thinking of how often this would be repeated.

Meg’s eyes flew to Emerson’s face, “I know. I’m sorry.”

“Why should you be sorry? I’m very grateful, Meg,” he said seriously.

She smiled. The smile turned into a mischievous grin, directed at Heyes.

“Emerson swore when I touched the first stitch with it!” she said.

“Meg!” warned Kate, quietly.

“He said **ing **! What the ! was that?” Meg finished, still looking at Heyes.

Heyes, bit his lip to hold back a laugh, but shook his head reprovingly at her. He strongly suspected Meg had not the faintest idea what she had just said. Kid, rather surprised Emerson even knew such words, glanced at Kate for her reaction. She was clearly torn between amusement and exasperation.

“Meg!” said Emerson, “That is not language fit for a lady.”

“Nor a gentleman, then!”

“Nor a gentleman,” he agreed, “But you and Kate have both received an apology from me.” His eyes held hers and flicked to the guests.

She dropped her own gaze and had the grace to blush.

“I apologise. Please forgive me, Mr. Smith, Mr. Jones.” She looked up at Emerson, “I’m sorry. It’s just that I worked in the same office with you, for nearly three years and never heard you say anything worse than – ‘drat’.” She sighed, “If I’d known any swear words, I’m sure I’d have used them, every time they sent me to get the guest list and description of the gowns, at another debutante’s coming out ball.”

Emerson released his good hand from Kate’s grasp, for a moment, to ruffle Meg’s bangs, in a gesture of affectionate, brotherly, reconciliation.

“Meg was about to tell me her villain’s latest machinations when you arrived,” he said, changing the subject.

Meg perked up.

“Yes,” she said. “I’ve changed it. Because of what Joshua said about…”

Kid sniffed the air and interrupted, “Is that your pie we can smell, Meg?”

“**!” yelped Meg, leaping up. “Sorry! I mean, drat!” She ran to the door. Turning, she said, “Don’t change the subject. I want to tell you about Mary-Sue’s next peril!” She whisked out of the room. Descending footsteps were heard taking the stairs two at a time. Less than a minute later, a flushed Meg bounced back into the bedroom and flopped back down on the footstool.

“Burnt?” asked Kate, sympathetically.

“Not burnt – ” said Meg, carefully, ” – just, well browned. Caramelised at the edge. What the French would call – brulee.” She glanced at the guests, “If you don’t like it – brulee – I can just cut you pieces from the centre.”

“I prefer it the French way,” smiled Heyes. “Sure it’s perfect Meg.”

She smiled gratefully at him.

“You’ve changed your villain’s machinations?” he prompted.

“Mmmm!” Meg looked from him to the Connors. “Joshua told me brothels are more usual than opium dens,” she explained. “More run of the mill.”

Heyes shifted in his seat, as he received a questioning look from Emerson.

“So I’ve decided the villain owns a house of ill-repute,” went on Meg sunnily, drawing her ever present notebook from her skirt pocket, “He has captured Mary-Sue and imprisoned her there. He leaves her, saying: ‘I will return this evening. Expect no mercy. No one can save you! Prepare to suffer a fate worse than death!’ Then he rides away. Cackling. Or possibly glowering.”

Meg clasped her hands, glowing with the pleasure of dramatic composition.

“Now the good bit,” she said, “Mary-Sue explores the house of ill-repute, trembling all the while at the doom awaiting her. Rich silken hangings adorn the walls, glinting scarlet, purple, emerald and ochre. The smooth marble floor is strewn with cushions. Velvet, damask and satin. Upon them recline gossamer clad odalisques. Each more seductive than the last. Their half closed, sultry eyes kindle with desire. Searing glances dart through the snaking smoke trails made by incense, burning in gleaming, finely wrought containers.”

Emerson cleared his throat.

“This house of ill-repute,” he queried. “Is it here, in Montana?”

Meg blinked.

“Well, Montana or Dakota Territory. I haven’t pinned it down,” she said.

Heyes and Curry exchanged a glance, first with each other, then with Emerson, as Meg went on, “One odalisque, her lissom body swaying like a young sapling, leads Mary-Sue to a back chamber. Here a pool, lined with fine mosaic has been dug. Rose petals float upon the warm scented water. The odalisque -”

Kid could bear it no longer, “Odalisque?”

“Quite right, Thaddeus,” agreed Emerson, with no irony whatsoever. “Although the word is often used, erroneously, to signify a concubine – the term actually refers to a junior member of the harem, occupied with purely domestic tasks. Although -” he added, fairly, “- she might, if considered physically attractive, or especially skilled in the performing arts, be undergoing training for elevation to the status of a concubine.”

Kid blinked.

“That’s what you thought, huh Thaddeus?” said Heyes, deadpan.

Meg drew breath.

“I think it’s a picturesque term,” she said firmly. “Much better than the alternatives.” She picked up, where she had left off, “Rose petals float upon the warm scented water. It is explained, to a horrified Mary-Sue, that here – ” she stared, challengingly, first at Kid, then at Emerson, ” – chosen odalisques, clad in delicate garments, the seams gummed rather than sewn, dive for the delectation of watching patrons. The warmth of the water dissolves the paste, holding together their diaphanous coverings. Piece by piece, their flimsy draperies float away, as they frolic and splash.”

Emerson interrupted again.

“Meg, is this whole section lifted from, ‘An Account of Travels in the Ottoman Empire’?”

“Not lifted,” said Meg, with dignity, “Adapted.”

“This book -” shrugged Heyes, casually, “- may I borrow it?”

“Certainly. Are you interested in Ottoman culture and history, Joshua?” asked Emerson, pleased.

“I am now,” said Heyes, avoiding his partner’s eyes.

“Mary-Sue pleads with her escort,” continued Meg, ‘Have pity! Release me. Do not condemn me to a fate worse than death!’

‘Importune me not!’ replies the lovely but merciless odalisque. ‘You know not what you ask. If I were to help – my own fate, would be worse than that, which now faces you!”

“A fate WORSE than a fate worse than death?” clarified Heyes, “Did you have something specific in mind, Meg?”

“An unspeakable fate!” said Meg firmly. She went on without pausing for breath, “‘Not only that – ‘ continues the beautiful but cruel odalisque, ‘ – I will never help you Mary-Sue. My hatred for you is more bitter than gall. I will laugh – laugh and rejoice to see you despoiled as I am!’

‘Why?’ cries Mary-Sue. ‘How have I injured you?’

The odalisque throws back her lovely head, her exquisite, almond shaped, dark eyes flash.

‘Because – ‘ she exclaims, ‘ – you have won the heart of Hannibal Heyes! The only man I ever loved. The only man in the world capable of satisfying my bottomless, raging, tempestuous passion!'”

Heyes sat back and crossed his legs.

“Didn’t see that one coming!”

Meg nodded eagerly.

“Good twist isn’t it? This odalisque – let’s call her Yasmeena – continues:

‘I was his favoured paramour! But, since you won his love, with your spotless purity and maidenly charms – he has foresworn my bed and company. Without him in my arms, without his searing kisses – my life is a desert. My body aches, nightly, for his touch!'”

Heyes clicked his tongue in sympathy.

“Gotta feel for the poor woman.”

Kid rolled his eyes and let his head fall, into his hands, as Meg continued.

“‘Once you are ravished Mary-Sue, you will suffer a lingering death at my hands. When you are gone – Hannibal will be mine forever!’

‘Never!’ declares Mary-Sue. ‘You may murder me, but Hannibal will never return to you! Nor to this house of debauchery! He has renounced sin forever!’

‘By all the powers of darkness -‘ swears Yasmeena, ‘- before you die, you will know that Hannibal is once again enslaved, by my bewitching embraces! Now, until tonight – I am to lock you in a secret, enclosed, underground, chamber, secured with locks of devilish – in fact Gordian – complexity!'”

“No obvious plot signal there then!” said Emerson, drawing an appreciative laugh from Heyes.

“Meanwhile,” continued Meg, frowning at both of them, “- Kid Curry is with another of the house’s loveliest odalisques, in an upper chamber.”

The real Kid Curry warily raised his head from his hands as Meg went on.

“This one – let’s call her, Fatima, is a glorious blonde -”

Kate interrupted, “I thought we’d settled that Kid Curry was – spotless? What’s he doing upstairs in a house of ill-repute with a blonde?”

“He has followed the villain, unseen, at a safe distance,” explained Meg, “Posing as a customer, he has gained entry to this den of vice and plans to persuade Fatima to reveal the location of the secret underground chamber.”

“Well – that may be his story!” Heyes shook his head cynically.

“It’s true!” protested Meg, “Anyway, Fatima is reclining on a rich daybed strewn with vivid satin draperies. Her luxuriant golden tresses spill over the bed, their curling ends reaching to her knees. Her violet eyes entice Kid through curling dark lashes. Her moistened lips murmur endearments. One shapely ankle swings rhythmically from the end of the bed, its tiny foot swathed in a beaded velvet slipper. As it swings, her silken skirts ride up her lovely calf. The pure-hearted Kid averts his eyes from the wanton’s shame. He begs her to tell him the location of the entrance to the underground chamber.

‘You will never discover the entrance unaided -‘ breathes Fatima, ‘- its concealment defies human scrutiny.’

‘Help me Fatima,’ pleads Kid Curry. ‘Help me rescue Mary-Sue.’

‘Upon one condition,’ bargains the radiant Fatima, leaning toward him.

‘Name it,’ exclaims Kid, ‘I am yours to command.’

‘Yield to me, Kid Curry -‘ demands Fatima, her violet eyes fiery with desire, ‘- I burn for your love. Abandon all restraint and take me here – as your paramour!'”

The real Kid Curry once again lowered his head into his hands.

“Well -” prompted Heyes, “- what does he do?”

Meg sat up straight and pushed back her bangs.

“I’m not sure,” she said. “That’s as far as I’ve got. I’m pretty confident he’s going to emerge completely unstained -”

“Oh, yes,” agreed Kate. “I couldn’t bear it if Kid compromised his principles! He’s my favourite.”

“But -” said Meg, “I can’t think of what he’s going to say to turn Fatima down. Not without him sounding – a bit of a milksop.” She looked at the partners. “If a beautiful, desirable, woman is begging you to – well -” Meg blushed faintly,”- make love; refusing to take ‘no’ for an answer; how do you turn her down without being either rude or pompous? What do you say?”

Kid looked up and simply stared, incredulous, at Meg.

Looking at his partner, Heyes said, “Been a coupla weeks since Thaddeus found himself in quite that position. Can he think it over – come back to you?”

She turned, not very optimistically, to Emerson. His expression was not much different to that worn by Kid.

Kate could not resist.

“Well -” she said hesitatingly.

Meg looked at her, hopefully, pencil hovering.

“He could say -” went on Kate, she lowered her voice, in a more than passable imitation of her husband “- ‘I’ll be right there, Darling. Just give me a few minutes to finish this article.’ Then fall asleep at his desk.”

Emerson blushed scarlet to the tips of his ears.

“Kate!” he protested, watching her shoulders shake with laughter. He hissed in a rapid undertone, not fully audible to the others, “…NOT funny…in front of … happened once, ONCE!…ever going to let me forget?..…”

As she watched her friend wipe her eyes, Meg huffed, “Well – that’s no help! I need something heroic!” Watching Emerson subside as Kate recaptured his hand and dropped on it a conciliatory, if not particularly repentant, kiss; she said, “Come on, Emerson! You’re a writer too! I always try and help when you’re stuck.”

“Well -,” he said, slowly, “- can he say something like -,” Meg’s pencil poised ready to take dictation, as Emerson began, “Full expression of physical love is properly reserved within bonds of matrimony. It is incumbent upon honourable men to exercise restraint, even under temptation, in view of the heavy price, borne mainly by the woman, consequent upon lapses in this area. This disproportionate outcome, is dictated partially by biology, but also by unfairly asymmetric mores, held by most sections of society. When I rescue -”

Emerson halted and looked at his wife for help.

“Mary-Sue,” she supplied.

“When I rescue Mary-Sue, it would be my privilege to also free you – er -”

“Fatima,” said Kate.

“- to free you, Fatima, from any bondage, or threat, holding you in this den of iniquity. Furthermore, I will take personal responsibility for ensuring you are offered opportunities to earn your livelihood without ever again being forced to submit to work within this shameful and exploitative trade. Not that the shame should be yours, my dear sister in adversity! No the guilt lies with the men who have brought you to this pass! It is one of the scandals of our age that the very society which traffics in -”

“Thank you,” said Meg, firmly, “I’ve got the gist.”

Heyes glanced at her notebook. It was as blank as before.

“Was that any use?” Emerson asked, doubtfully.

“The sentiments were perfect,” said Kate, kindly, “That’s exactly how we both imagine Kid thinking. The problem was just with -,” she searched.

“The words!” finished Meg, baldly, “He’s supposed to be taciturn!”

“Huh?” said the real Kid.

“A man of few words,” translated Kate, with a kind smile.

“In that case -” took up Emerson, “- does he have to say anything? Can he refuse Fatima with a noble, though not unkindly, gesture; while wearing an expression of firm manly resolve?”

“Ooohh!” said Meg, intrigued. “It’s a thought.”

“You could switch the focus to Fatima, let her do the talking.” chimed in Kate, helpfully, “Whilst Kid oozes firm, manly resistance to temptation – you describe the allurements by which she tries to overcome his resolve.”

“I like that,” encouraged Meg, scribbling, “but -,” she looked up, suddenly worried, “- Fatima has already narrowed her eyes and moistened her lips.” Meg’s face puckered into a frown, “That’s about shot my allurement bolt! What else can she do?” She looked up enquiringly.

The men in the room made gestures indicative of reluctance to hazard an opinion.

“Let us have the description of Fatima again,” requested Kate. Her friend complied. “Is Kid sitting down?” was Kate’s next question.

“Can be,” decided Meg.

“Well -” said Kate, “- why not have Fatima, with a delicate flick; loose the beaded velvet slipper – letting it fall softly to the floor. Then let her hold his eyes, smile enticingly and run her rosy tipped toes the full length of his inner thigh, bringing her warm, naked foot to rest, gently in his lap?”

Both partners shifted in their seats, recrossing their legs in unison.

Meg blinked at her notebook.

“Would that work?” she queried, looking at Heyes.

“Yup!” he said, simply.

“Absolutely! Every time,” concurred Kate, with supreme confidence.

“Kate!” murmured Emerson, warningly, as a telltale blush again swept from throat to forehead.

“I’ll use that then!” said Meg. She snapped shut her notebook and returned it to her skirt pocket. She took a satisfied breath and smiled at both partners.

“What’s in the envelope, Thaddeus?” she asked.

—oooOOOooo—

CHAPTER TWELVE

Kid looked at the envelope he had laid down on taking his seat.

“It’s not mine,” he said, handing it over to Kate.

“Oh, I forgot!” she exclaimed, “I think it’s from Jimmy back at the Boston Enquirer.”

“Kate!” huffed Meg, “That means it’ll be background he discovered on Hamilton or Carleton. There could be a clue. How could you forget?”

“I’m sorry,” Kate smiled up at Emerson, gently squeezing his hand, “I can’t imagine what else I had to think about!”

“Humph,” sniffed her friend, taking the envelope and beginning to tear it open. She moved her eyes to Heyes, “What about you –” sternly, “– did you remember to bring the notes you made?”

He smiled, producing last night’s notebook, from his jacket, “You gotta have faith, Meg.”

She grinned back and shifted her footstool so she could sit beside him. Sliding the documents from the envelope, she roughly divided them, passing half up to Heyes.

“Let me know at once if anything sounds odd, so I can look,” she instructed, bending over the first document still in her own hand.

“Yes ma-am!”

Meg eyed him, not missing the implication of bossiness. “Or if it seems to contradict what we found last night,” she ordered even more firmly. “And don’t skip!”

The former leader of the notorious Devil’s Hole gang blinked, “No ma-am!”

Kid looked at Emerson, warily, then at Meg.

“So he knows what you were up to last night?” he asked, in an undertone.

“Emerson knows I broke into the safe out at West Hill last night,” she confirmed, “– and, of course, that you two helped a little.” she added, fairly.

Kid shifted his attention to Kate.

“And that –” he paused.

“And that I stole a Bryant pump and a selection of blasting gear from the mine company. And that I was Meg’s –” Kate raised her chin proudly, “- backup. Well, until you took over.” She smiled up at her husband. “Of course he knows. I tell him everything, don’t I darling?”

“Several times, usually,” he confirmed with a teasing smile. He looked over at Kid, “I’m not sure I understood it all. I can’t see how Meg expected to set off the nitro without waking everybody up.”

“I didn’t,” said Meg, bluntly, as she laid aside a transcript of an article starting ‘Copper Strike in Montana’. “I meant to open the window ready, pack up in advance, then grab all the documents I could see and sprint like crazy. Everyone’s natural reaction would be to run toward the smoke. By the time they stopped panicking – I’d have been hidden in the trees.” She looked at Heyes, “I’m very fast!” she said with simple pride.

“I saw that at the fire,” he smiled at her appreciatively, looking up from an account of Hamilton’s gold mining success in the Black Hills.

Kid frowned at Emerson.

“Don’t you have a problem with this?” he demanded.

“Well –” said Emerson, carefully, aware of two pairs of feminine eyes watching him challengingly, “– it scores highly for initiative and imagination. But I have to say, I don’t think it was a sensible plan.”

Kid crossed his arms over his chest and harrumphed. His glance at both girls suggested ‘Told you so!’

Seeing Meg about to defend the stratagem with a full volley of fluent argument, Emerson forestalled her, “For a start – I’m pretty sure I was deliberately knocked on the head and it’s not hard to believe Carleton’s behind it; -” he winced and raised his good hand, to his brow.

“Don’t try and remember,” said Kate, gently, “The Doctor says it’ll come back naturally over the next few days.”

He shook his head, as if trying to clear it, then went on, “– But we don’t know it’s because of anything he has to hide. Certainly, nothing I’ve found out. And even if it was – I can’t imagine what these two expected to find in his safe!”

“Apart from the diary beginning ‘I am a Napoleon of crime and here I record my sinister secret for posterity.’?” said Heyes, seriously.

Emerson grinned at Heyes in sympathetic understanding of being on the receiving end of Meg’s imagination.

“Apart from the evil mastermind’s journal, obviously!” he agreed.

Watching Kid’s perturbed expression, his partner saw they were moments away from him asking why Kate’s husband, was not furiously insisting she promise to stay out of danger; and why Meg’s brother-in-all-but-name, was not demanding to know, why they had not simply dragged her straight home last night. Heyes suspected this would not go down well with anyone.

He coughed and spoke up, to divert attention, “What are you reading now, Meg?”

“A report on the wedding of Oliver Carleton and Lydia Hamilton,” she said, “- doesn’t appear useful, though. The dates agree – August 1872.” She gave a little shudder, “When I think of all the time I spent writing things like this…

‘the bride wore a gown of heavy ivory satin, the skirt abundantly draped with Valenciennes lace, caught at one side with a spray of velvet roses, bedewed with glass beading to simulate dewdrops. The hem was trimmed with a triple layer of pleated grosgrain, which also formed the train. More velvet roses bedecked this, interwoven in an embroidered trellis worked in silver thread.'”

Meg cast a critical glance at Kate, “She’s only my height. She must have looked like a walking bundle of laundry.”

Meg read on, silently for a moment.

“Quite a society affair,” she remarked. “St. Paul’s.”

“Really?” said Kate, surprised,

“Mmm. A full guest list given. Six bridesmaids. Matron of honour – in deep amber satin – Mrs. Edward Cholmondley.”

“Charlotte Cholmondley, matron of honour!” exclaimed Kate, “Good heavens – she’s one of my stepmother’s oldest friends.” She thought for a minute, “I wouldn’t have thought she had anything in common with Lydia Carleton. She’s – ” Kate stopped short, clearly working on the ‘if you can’t say anything pleasant –’ rule.

“Disdainful. Contemptuous. Sneering,” supplied Meg, bluntly, “Dismissive of anyone without money, breeding and connections. Liable to leave a journalist, sent to take a report of her silly musical recital, standing for three solid hours without being offered so much as a seat, a cup of tea or a civil word!”

“Don’t beat about the bush, Meg,” urged Emerson, “If you don’t like the woman, just say so!”

“Well,” went on Kate, mildly, “The point being, Lydia Carleton isn’t quite –” she stopped short again, this time flushing faintly.

Meg agreed, “Oh no, she isn’t a –” before she too, caught back her words and blushed.

Heyes wondered what the joint creators of Fatima, the glorious and enticing blonde, found so embarrassing, they were struck dumb.

Meg turned over to an obituary of Louis Hamilton and cleared her throat, “What about you, Joshua? What have you got there?”

“An account of some party Hamilton threw for his sister – back when she was eighteen,” he said.

“Not a coming out ball?” shuddered Meg, “Was she fresh and youthful in spotless white muslin; or smiling and unspoilt in a cloud of white organza spangled with seed pearls?”

Heyes frowned, “Says – layers of illusion floatin’ over tambour worked –” He broke off impatiently, “Did you really get paid to write this kinda stuff, Meg?”

“Not that one obviously. But dozens like it!” she grimaced.

“Who the Sam Hill wanted to read it?”

“The girl’s family,” Emerson told him, “They pay for the announcements – so much per inch.” He added, “I swapped assignments once and wrote one for you, didn’t I Meg?”

“No,” she said bluntly, “You offered to take my place, because you knew Kate was going to be there, without Mrs. Thornton. You never wrote the piece.”

“I did!”

“You didn’t!” she insisted, “You wrote the name of the debutante, date, venue; then veered off into an – admittedly scholarly – couple of paragraphs about dance as courtship ritual. There were also two hundred words on the differing significance of white as a symbolic colour across cultures. I said ‘what was the girl wearing – don’t say “white” because I knew that without asking – and how was her mother dressed?’ – and you gaped like a codfish.”

“That was the night he proposed,” sighed Kate.

“You never let me propose. We strolled out to that gazebo. I went down on one knee, said ‘Miss Thornton –’ and you slid down, off the bench and kissed me.” Emerson cast a wry glance at Heyes, “By the time she let go, it seemed impolite to explain, I was only down there looking for a dropped cufflink!”

Kate twinkled up at him, “Just practicing the editing, darling. If I hadn’t shut you up, you’d still have been kneeling there, in full flow, when my chaperone came to drag me back inside.”

“Can this go on the ‘no use’ pile, Meg?” said Heyes, “It’s just stuff about guests and flowers and where she went to school.”

“Where?” asked Kate.

“Miss Hamilton makes her debut after two years completin’ her education at the – ” unsure, Heyes coughed, to gain a moment before attempting, ” – Institut des Trimountaine.”

“Institut des Trimountaine!” repeated Kate, displaying perfect French inflection, “She can’t have gone there! Certainly not for two years!”

“You’ve made a mistake, Joshua,” pronounced Meg, taking the sheet from him.

“I can read you know!”

“He’s right!” she confirmed, a moment later. She flashed him an apologetic glance, “Sorry. It’s just difficult to believe.”

“Impossible!” confirmed Kate.

“Why?” asked Kid.

Both turned to face him.

“When Kate said ‘How do you do?’ on Wednesday, Mrs. Carleton replied, ‘Very well, thank you.'” started Meg, “After I was introduced, she said ‘Pleased to make your acquaintance.’ Then, she referred to her brother’s death as ‘passing on’,” concluded Meg, as if that clinched the matter.

“Well,” Kid frowned, confused, “What’s wrong with that?”

“There’s absolutely NOTHING wrong with any of that,” said Kate, firmly, “None of it matters in the slightest. BUT – ” she went on ” – that is NOT the opinion of the institutrices employed at Trimountaine. If Lydia Hamilton had said ‘pardon me’ whilst there, the roof would have fallen in on her head!”

“It’s very exclusive, very expensive and specialises in ensuring its girls can be successfully launched into the marriage mart, not only here, but seamlessly in English society, if their parents hanker after a title,” explained Meg, “And Kate knows, because she was walled up in the place, for six months, before her father finally agreed, to let her go to a college actually teaching something useful.” She mused on the word ‘useful’, for a moment, “Well, something other than feminine accomplishments.”

“It wasn’t a complete waste of time,” smiled Kate, “Whenever the Postmaster General, the Librarian of Congress, the Chief Justice, the Bishop of Winchester, a former Vice-President and a Knight of St. Patrick all call, unexpectedly – I’ll know where to seat them at dinner.”

“Of course – someone would have to take the non matching plate,” said Emerson.

“And I can curtsey all the way to the floor, then walk backwards wearing a three foot train and carrying a pile of books on my head,” she added.

“Which will help pass the long winter evenings if we get snowed in,” mused her husband.

“The point is -” said Meg, confused, “– I don’t see how the woman I met on Wednesday could have gone to that school, made a debut reported in the society pages of the Boston Weekly Enquirer and had Mrs. ‘you are not here as a guest, young woman!’ Cholmondeley as her matron of honour.”

Heyes met Meg’s eyes, smiled quizzically at her, raised an eyebrow and waited. She did not let him down. Less than two seconds later, he saw matching understanding, sweep across her face.

“Oh!” she gasped, “Oh – you are clever, Joshua!”

Emerson and Kate were not far behind.

“Oh!” breathed Kate. “So the woman living out at West Hill isn’t -?”

“Good heavens!” chimed in Emerson, catching up fast. Very fast; in view of the fact he had only the explanations both girls had given earlier; and a cracked skull, to work with. “That’s –,” he searched.

“Labyrinthine?” ventured Kid, with whom light was dawning more slowly – but nonetheless surely.

“Labyrinthine! The very word!” exclaimed Emerson, “Thaddeus, I do envy your invariable faculty for expressing yourself with linguistic economy.”

“Uh huh?” said Heyes, eyeing his partner, “Just a knack he has.”

oooOOOOOOOooo-

Heyes began to pace.

Somewhat to Kid’s relief he also began to fill in a few blanks.

“So Carleton gets a message that his brother-in-law, his RICH brother-in-law, is dyin’. He want’s to see his baby sister before he goes. They set out from Chicago. Carleton slaverin’ at the thought of all that money!

Mrs. Carleton, bein’ brought up as fancy as Kate, but not bein’ as –” he smiled appreciatively at her, “– adaptable – brings along a maid to save her the trouble of lacin’ her own boots and brushin’ her own hair.”

“Yes, I hope you appreciate how much I’m roughing it – having to do that kind of heavy work myself,” pouted Kate, teasingly, to Emerson.

“Its winter – a mild winter – nothin’ like ’81, but the journey still takes a coupla weeks,” went on Heyes, “They get as far as Medora. Arrive at a hotel. The staff see two women – both in their thirties, like as not both short and mousy. Both well wrapped up against the cold. Then – disaster – there’s an accident.”

“Or – not an accident!” speculated Meg, darkly.

“There’s an incident!” amended Heyes, smiling at her, “Carleton’s wife is injured! Either he knows she’s not likely to make it – or for some reason he’s plannin’ she’s not goin’ to make it! He calls for a doctor. Thinks of the richest copper strike ever made slippin’ through his fingers! He says – ‘Our maid has had a fall!’ The wife dies. She gets buried under the name ‘Ellen Fraser’. The maid goes along with it. Takes her place.” Heyes paused in his pacing, “Why?”

There was a short silence.

Emerson broke it, “Stripped of extraneous detail, the motives for crime are do not usually vary from a few common themes.”

The two ex-outlaws exchanged a glance and waited for him to continue.

“There is greed,” he went on.

“He’s paying her,” mused Meg.

“There is revenge. There is love. Or -” Emerson flushed faintly, “– perhaps a more accurate term would be passion.”

“She’s his –” Meg also hesitated with momentary embarrassment, “– paramour. It IS his baby!” she looked triumphantly at Kid, “NOT Emerson’s! AND he isn’t impotent!”

“What?” exclaimed Emerson, jerking upright, then wincing as it was again borne upon him how much it hurt to move his head.

“Believe me –” said Heyes, sympathetically, “– you really don’t wanna know!”

“I am NOT –”

“No, not you darling,” soothed Kate, “Oliver Carleton. And Joshua’s right – you really don’t want to know.”

Emerson closed his eyes and decided his wife was right – he did not want to know. Taking a deep breath, he continued, “Finally, there is fear; fear of the likely results of NOT committing the crime.”

“He’s threatening her!” brooded Meg. She narrowed her eyes as she looked at Heyes, “If she does not comply with his evil deceptions, she faces – ”

“An unspeakable fate,” completed Heyes, winning an appreciative grin.

He resumed pacing, “Carleton and his fake wife continue on to Butte. They wire for news of Hamilton and make sure they arrive just too late for him to see his ‘sister’. No one here has ever met her. That includes the lawyers in Helena.

Chris Lloyd mighta seen a weddin’ photo – but Carleton’s prepared to take the risk. He’s trustin’ eleven years, change in hair style, fancy clothes and the fact that most photographs make anyone look like a stuffed shop dummy – will be enough.”

“And,” said Meg, “The substitute Mrs. Carleton, stays home, stays quiet and doesn’t encourage visitors. Which isn’t hard – because Butte is not richly stocked with respectable, feminine society. So no one really bothers with her.”

“Except you,” said Heyes, looking at Kate.

“Well – a few visits,” concurred Kate, “I would never have returned except – the first time – April – ” she looked up at Emerson, “- you remember, darling, for a few weeks I felt ill most mornings?” He nodded and stroked her cheek tenderly for a moment, “– well, during my visit, I became indisposed. ‘Mrs. Carleton’ was transformed. She guessed we were expecting a baby too and was so kind. She put my feet up on the sofa, laid a cool cloth on my forehead and fetched some ginger in water – which was horrid, but it worked. Then she became quite talkative – only about baby clothes and names – but still, it made me realise, how lonely she must be.”

“All this talking about names wasn’t very productive. She still called it, ‘Oliver the second’,” said Meg, “I hate that.” A wary look crossed her face, “I haven’t put my foot in it? You’re not planning on, ‘Emerson Junior’?”

“Certainly not!” said Emerson, “I loved my parents dearly, but still can’t understand what came over them, at the font.”

An expression, which Meg would certainly have stigmatised as ‘broody’, settled on his face, “I like ‘Miranda’,” he sighed, “– or maybe, ‘Rosalind’.”

“Rosalind is real pretty,” approved Kid, with a pensive look of his own.

Meg rolled her eyes.

“Both gonna get him pretty beat up, by other boys,” said Heyes, deadpan.

Emerson came out of his reverie and acknowledged this with a rather sheepish grin.

Heyes continued, “So – Ellen Fraser lays low out at West Hill – answerin’ to ‘Lydia Carleton’. But she’s tempted into a coupla harmless feminine conversations with Kate. She probably doesn’t tell Carleton.”

Kate nodded in agreement, “I took a little gift after baby Oliver was born.” She looked self-conscious, “It was nothing. A sketch for the nursery – but you could see she was touched. Anyway, the point is, Joshua is right – because she hurried me out. Told me she expected her husband home any moment – and would I please excuse her?”

“Right,” said Heyes, “Now we come to last Wednesday. West Hill. A message is brought in – ‘Mrs. Connor has called, ma-am.’ Carleton is out – ” he glanced at Meg, with a smile, ” – either grindin’ the faces of poor, but honest, mineworkers; else checkin’ on the profits, from his dens of vice. So, Ellen perks up, at the thought of a little baby talk, with that nice, kind Mrs. Connor. Let’s her in. Too late realises – she’s not alone – and it’s not just a social call.” Heyes put his hands on his hips and looked at Kate, “You told her, your husband had asked you to find out about her brother. Asked about her time back East. Asked where they’d been born. Where they’d lived. Who were his friends.

Asked for a few childhood memories. Huh?”

Kate nodded, looking stricken.

He went on, “You introduced your friend – fresh from Boston.” A thought struck him, “Was it the first time you told her exactly where you’re from?”

Kate’s face puckered, confused, “I’m not sure. It wasn’t a secret, but I don’t remember whether it had come up before.”

Heyes turned to Meg. “And you –” he grinned, “– you just talked her ear off, huh?” He opened his eyes artlessly wide, shook his hair forward and clasped his hands together, looking up, from under the makeshift bangs.

“‘I worked on the Boston Enquirer. I’m an investigative journalist. I AM!

Well except I have to write reports of fancy weddings and balls.

So I know ALL about good society.

You won’t be able to hide your humble origins from me. Oh no!

But the point is – I’m still a real journalist.

AND now – I’m Emerson’s assistant editor, here in Butte. I AM!

AND I write detective novels.

So, if anyone has sinister secrets to hide – watch out.

My friend Jimmy, back at the Boston office, he’ll search the archives for us – won’t he Kate?

Oooh – do you think he’ll uncover anything interesting about you, Mrs. Carleton?

Does your husband keep a journal, Mrs. Carleton?

Is he a Napoleon of crime?

Does he have evil machinations?

Is he inadequate?

Does he run opium?”

By this time Meg also had her hands on her hips, as she squared up to Heyes, open mouthed and wide eyed with affronted dignity.

“I do NOT talk that much!” she protested.

“Pfffttt!” said Kid dismissively, having found the word so useful earlier.

“Perfect economy of expression again, Thaddeus,” admired Emerson.

Meg deflated slightly, “Well – I didn’t say ANY of that!”

Heyes smiled at her, brown eyes affectionately warm. He waited, confident his Meg could take teasing, as well as dish it out.

She grinned, ruefully. “I didn’t say ALL of that,” she temporised. She thought for a moment, bit her bottom lip and turned to Kate.

“Oh dear,” she gulped, glancing at Emerson.

“Oh dear,” agreed Kate. She turned to her husband, “I’m afraid this is all my fault, darling. It wasn’t you about to find something out. It was me. I should have been hit on the head – but you were easier to reach. How unfair!”

Kid was watching Kate. But as she said this, he glanced up at Emerson. He saw a fleeting look of real fear cross the man’s face, for the first time.

“If Carleton had offered me the alternative, I’d have volunteered,” he said.

“I know that,” replied Kate, simply, “But you know I would too.”

Kid looked away, cleared his throat and prompted his partner.

“So, Kate an’ Meg leave. Mrs. Carleton, I mean, the fake one – panics. They don’t suspect now – but much more diggin’ into the past an’ they just might.”

“Right,” said Heyes, “Carleton comes home – she tells hims. Or he sees her all riled an’ shakes it outta her. He wants to get Emerson to call his wife an’ Meg off – without lettin’ on why. Tries to buy him out. Tries to scare him back East. No dice. Then thinks he’ll shut down the paper some other way. Sets a gun on Emerson. He has a back up plan, case that don’t work. Takes himself outta the way to Anaconda. A widowed Mrs. Connor isn’t likely to carry on alone. She certainly won’t be followin’ up background on a deceased mine owner. Most likely she’ll leave Butte once her husband’s buried, takin’ Meg with her.” Heyes gave his partner a serious look, “That was Thursday night, Friday morning. By now, he probably knows we got in the way both times. Less he’s a fool he knows we’re workin’ on the ‘why?’ He’s due back Monday. Might speed it up.”

Kid nodded, frowning. He met Heyes’ eyes.

“What we gonna do ’bout it? Have you got us a plan?”

Meg looked at Heyes, “If we know the truth – do we need a plan, Joshua? Can’t we just – tell the Sheriff? Have Mr. Carleton arrested. Leave it to the authorities.”

Kid’s expression conveyed little enthusiasm for Meg’s suggestion.

“Tell the Sheriff – what?” he asked.

“That – the real Mrs. Carleton is dead and buried,” said Meg, “That Mr. Carleton doesn’t have any claim on the mine. He’s swindling Mr. Lloyd the real owner. That he’s guilty of attempted murder. That he might already have killed his wife.”

Kid still looked reluctant, as he glanced first at Heyes, then back at Meg.

“An’ when he says ‘Got anythin’ to back that up fella?’ –” he asked, sceptically, “– we say, ‘Yup – the woman out at West Hill, holds her teacup wrong and can’t walk backwards, with a book on her head!’ – that the plan?”

Meg opened her mouth, realised Kid might have a point, closed it and looked at Heyes, for guidance.

“The thing is Meg,” he said. “Thaddeus is right. I don’t think the Sheriff is goin’ to be too impressed bein’ offered fine points of etiquette as evidence. Reckon he’s goin’ to want somethin’ more – solid – before he’ll move against the richest man in town.”

Meg frowned, “There’s the death certificate in the safe.”

“Sayin’ what? It just confirms it was the maid that died. An’ that the accident was reported fair and square in Medora,” Heyes explained, gently.

“And,” said Kid, “– you might not wanna draw attention to how we know what’s in the safe.” He coughed and held his partner’s eyes, “The sheriff might take a bit too much interest in – Meg – if he knows she can open a safe, without so much as a firecracker. Might not believe in beginner’s luck.”

The two ex-outlaws exchanged a mute conversation. They had an unspoken agreement with the Sheriff, ‘Might not believe in ‘Smith an’ Jones’, respectable payroll guards – but won’t be pursuin’ it less there’s a reason.’

Finding out that not only was blond Thaddeus Jones the quickest draw ever seen in town; but that his dark partner could crack safes, by manipulating the tumblers; – might just be reason enough.

“What we need,” said Kate, “is someone who knew the real Lydia Carleton by sight. We could telegraph to her trustees, in Boston, have them send someone out. Or they could give us a contact in Chicago.”

It was Heyes turn to look reluctant.

“Long journey. It might be summer now – but still gonna take a while for anyone to arrive. Even a good clear photograph – just say there is one – isn’t gonna get here in less’n a week. A lot can happen in a week.”

“Yes indeed,” said Meg, with a worried look at her two friends. Clutching her hands together, she looked up, eyes full of entreaty, “Couldn’t you stay? Please. Please say yes, Joshua?” Seeing his expression change, she felt her cheeks grow hot. Suddenly hesitant, she dropped her gaze unable to meet his eyes, “Just for a week, I meant. Both of you. To be our lookouts. If – if circumstances aren’t too much against it?” In a very small voice she added, “I know it’s a lot to ask. But I’d – we’d – feel so much safer.”

She did not raise her eyes, but saw a tanned hand reach over and briefly clasp both of hers.

Quietly, in the gentle voice she recognised from the woods last night, he said, “You don’t have to ask. I’m goin’ nowhere till you’re safe.”

He cleared his throat and went on in his normal tone, “Anyway, it’s not just the people in this room I’m thinkin’ of, when I say, a lot can happen in a week.” He began to pace again.

“Carleton’s not a fool. He doesn’t think anyone’s worked out his ‘wife’s’ an imposter. But there’s a risk – they might. Now, he’s just had a son. A son, in whose name he can milk every last penny outta this mine, for the next twenty-one years. The only piece of evidence against him; the only person who’s a real danger, is currently walkin’ round West Hill, cooin’ over that new baby.” Heyes gave Kid a very straight look, “You’re Carleton – you’re a skunk – whaddya goin’ to do?”

Kid thought for a moment. His face hardened, as he realised what Heyes feared.

He said, “I’m goin’ to get rid of the evidence. If anyone sends to Boston or Chicago – it won’t matter. Nothin’ to see – leastways, nothin’ you could recognise.”

Kate gasped, “Joshua, is that really what you think will happen?”

Heyes nodded, “Pretty much.”

Kid met his eyes, “Brings me back where I started. What are we gonna do ’bout it?”

His partner frowned. Curry could see his mind at work.

Meg opened her mouth, to offer a suggestion and received a peremptory ‘shush’ from Kid. He gave her a ‘let him think’, look. Rather to his surprise, she subsided, watching Heyes with the hopeful look of a cat, waiting by a mouse hole.

There was a minute’s silence.

It was broken by Kate, who said, very quietly, “We have to warn her.”

Her husband squeezed her hand approvingly.

Heyes looked at Kate thoughtfully, his brain still turning.

Finally, he nodded, “We go see her. Test the waters. If it seems she might listen – we warn her. The woman Kate describes don’t sound exactly a hardened criminal. Never know. She could have no idea ’bout the hired gun, ’bout the fire. I fill her in, she might see sense – turn him in.”

“Don’t think she’ll even meet us,” said Kid, doubtfully.

“Not takin’ you Thaddeus. I’m takin’ someone to work the feminine angle.”

“Me?” chirped Meg.

“No, takin’ Kate,” Heyes deflated her.

“Why?” she protested, “I can do feminine!”

“You’re still callin’ the baby ‘it’!” he said bluntly, “Kate’s goin’ to appeal to her as a mother.”

Seeing Meg about to argue, Kate interrupted, “Be fair Meg! You just had a whole night at West Hill. Cracked a safe! Rolled in a haystack with Joshua! Came home at dawn, covered in grass stains! Now it’s my turn!”

“Darling!” reproved Emerson mildly, “I don’t think you meant that, quite how it came out.”

Kid’s simultaneous protest was more inarticulate, but clearly prompted by the same concern. It was accompanied by a glower at Heyes – ‘Not so much as a finger’.

“Uh huh,” grunted Heyes, dampingly to Kate. “You do realise we’re just goin’ to walk up to the front door and knock? We won’t need the butter knife to jemmy the windows. Won’t be in the stables frightenin’ the horses.”

“Oh well -” said Kate, smiling happily first at her husband, then at Heyes, “– it’s an outing! We can’t all expect Meg’s level of nocturnal adventure.”

“Hmmm,” said Heyes. With mock sternness, he added, “If you play your part VERY well, I may allow you to fall in the river picking flowers on the way home. Don’t want to bring you back so clean an’ tidy you feel it’s a wasted trip.”

Meg saw the justice of her friend having a share of active plotting and scheming, but was not completely reconciled, “Suppose you meet those stable hands? They’ll recognise you, Joshua.”

“Kate an’ I will call in at the hotel first. I’ll put on a suit, slick back my hair, pick up a pair of spectacles. Be enough.” He gave Meg a wicked look, “Wasn’t my face they were gawkin’ at – was mostly your legs!”

“Still, maybe Thaddeus should escort Kate?” she offered.

“Nope. Thaddeus is goin’ to be busy, gatherin’ information; case we need plan B,” said Heyes decisively.

“Oooh,” said Meg pleased, “I’m glad there’s a plan B, because I think we might need it.” She looked, expectantly, at Heyes. A beat. “Well – what is it?”

“I’m still workin’ on it,” he said, “But I do know what I want Thaddeus to find out.”

Kid looked at him enquiringly.

“First –” said Heyes, “– try and get word of who Carleton had set the fire. Whoever it was probably spent yesterday lyin’ low. Now they mighta heard Emerson’s come round – be wonderin’ if he remembers anything. Worry works on a man. They might be drinking. Might be seekin’ – other distractions. If you can – find them.”

Kid nodded understanding and acceptance.

Heyes continued, “What you want is any news on when Carleton’s due back. Still Monday? Or has he sent word he’s on his way. AND – anything you can pick up on his plans.” He held Kid’s eyes for a moment, “We’re not lookin’ for a fight. If Deke Simons is back on the move – avoid him – at least for now.” He smiled and added with partly mock, partly real concern, “Got quite a list for you, Thaddeus. I can’t have you getting shot till its all done.” Receiving ‘the look’ from his partner, he went on, “Besides – we don’t need the attention you an’ him squarin’ up would draw.” He waited for a response.

After a beat, he received another nod of agreement from Kid.

Heyes picked up the notebook he’d used the night before. Flicking through it, he tore out a page, “Find out where Carleton spends his evenings. We know from Kate here, its not home at West Hill. Check his saloons and these -” Heyes handed over the notes, “– addresses of his –” he grinned, “– dens of common or garden vice. You’re probably lookin’ for somewhere on the fancy side. Nice private rooms. Where he might meet – friends.”

“Ooooh!” breathed Meg, thrilled, “Is Thaddeus going to find the villain’s lair – where he briefs his sneering henchmen?”

“Pretty much,” smiled Heyes.

“And he’ll discover a hidden recess, ‘draped in arras’, where he can ‘convey and screen himself to o’erhear – the speech of vantage’!” she continued delighted. “Without getting stabbed, of course,” she clarified, to Kate, who nodded, sharing her friend’s concern for Kid’s safety.

“Uh huh,” said Heyes, “If all that meant – check out possibilities for listenin’ in – Yup.”

Meg clasped her hands together, eyes sparkling with excitement, “And since you’re with Kate; I’m with Thaddeus – as backup?”

“Nope,” said Heyes.

Her face fell, “Why not?”

“‘Cause I’m not walkin’ into a brothel, with you on my arm, askin’ for a room!” explained Kid bluntly.

“Worried she’ll be so busy gawkin’ round, she’ll trip over a silken cushion an’ fall into the mosaic lined, scented pool, huh Thaddeus?” grinned Heyes, winning a glare from his partner.

Meg was frowning over the problem. “I do see you might be embarrassed walking in with me,” she said fairly. “What would people think?” An idea struck her, “What if I ‘obscured myself in the lovely garnish of a boy’?”

“Huh?” said Kid.

“We could borrow an outfit from Ned Kingsley,” supported Kate, “Tack the hems up.” She looked at her friend admiringly, “With her hair tucked in a cap, she’d easily pass for a sixteen year old youth!”

“There you go, Thaddeus!” enthused Heyes, “She’ll be disguised as a boy – not embarrassing at all!” Kid’s expression threatened dire retribution once the partners were alone. “Still no?” queried Heyes. He shook his head in mock disappointment, “Sorry, Meg – looks like Thaddeus plans on doin’ without a backup.”

She slumped, disappointed.

“Isn’t it going to be embarrassing for Thaddeus anyway? Walking into those places,” asked Emerson, seriously.

“He’ll cope,” dismissed Heyes.

“No,” said Kid. “The man’s gotta point.” Meeting his partner’s incredulous look and conscious of the listening girls, he expanded, “I mean walking in is one thing – but I can’t just ask to see round, enquirin’ if Oliver Carleton’s got a private room.”

“For heavens sake!” exploded Heyes. “Do I have to think of everything! Improvise! Take a leaf outta Meg’s book – use a little imagination! Say you’re lookin’ for the diving odalisques. When you don’t find ’em – walk out sayin’ the place don’t offer the kinda service you’ve been used to back in Wyoming!”

Meg nodded and weighed in on the creative front, “You could say you want to see the best rooms because you’re planning to throw a bacchanal.”

“Baccha – ?” gaped Kid.

“Right again, Thaddeus,” said Emerson, approvingly. “The word bacchanal suggests a revel in which the chief divertissements are wine, carousing and song; although other debauchery is not ruled out. Orgy would be a better term for what I believe Meg has in mind.”

“That right, Meg?” asked Heyes, with a quizzical smile, “You sittin’ there thinkin’ bout orgies?”

She pondered.

“To be honest,” she admitted, “I’m thinking of people in togas, lying on couches, drinking too much, laughing, eating bunches of grapes and watching dancing girls perform, to the music of a lyre.” She turned to Emerson, “Which would that be?”

He thought for a moment, then smiled fondly at her, “I’m relieved to say, Meg, apart from the classical costume, that’s just a dinner party.”

“You could pose as a customer, Thaddeus,” suggested Kate, “but claim a fear of enclosed spaces.” Receiving a questioning look from her husband, she explained, “So he has an excuse for examining all the larger rooms and prolonging the conversation.” She turned back earnestly to Kid, “Then – when you’ve seen what you need – pretend to be overcome with self-reproach. You cannot renege on your vow of fidelity to a sweetheart, patiently awaiting your return in a distant state. So you walk out.”

“Oooh, that’s good,” enthused Meg, “Or – explain the remorse flooding your breast has rendered you – inadequate. Then walk out.”

“Need a few more suggestions, Thaddeus?” said Heyes, wide eyed with mock helpfulness, “Or had enough help?”

“More’n enough!” said Kid, glowering at him.

“What can I do?” said Meg, eagerly.

Heyes looked at her. “You could do something with those chickens an’ get that pie served. ‘Fore Thaddeus get even proddier.”

For a moment, Meg looked about to protest.

Then, hungry herself, she sprang up with a cheerful grin, “I’ll do that right now. Then what?”

“Wash up?” he offered.

“No really?” she protested.

“Save Kid Curry from Fatima’s clutches? Let Hannibal persuade Yasmeena, he can keep both her and Mary-Sue happy?” suggested Heyes, teasingly.

“Joshua! You’re not leaving me out?” she cried.

“How could I?” he smiled, “I need both you an’ Emerson workin’ on Plan B. And – most likely – Plan C.”

—oooOOOooo—

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